Pastor Sunil was preparing for his Easter Sunday sermon when the news broke of deadly bombings at multiple churches in his native Sri Lanka. Over 250 people died, many of them children.
At the time, Pastor Sunil went straight to Batticaloa, where Zion Church was targeted by a suicide bomber, to support the survivors and families of the victims. The work continues nearly a year on.
He speaks to Christian Today about how the Christian community there is coping after last year's Easter Sunday attacks and why he's more fearful of radical Buddhists than radical Muslims.
CT: Sri Lanka ranks 30th on the Open Doors World Watch List. What is the situation like at the moment for Christians there?
Pastor Sunil: The constitution ensures freedom of religion but it's not really putting it into practice. And it really varies depending on the location. The more local, the more severe the persecution gets.
Most of the persecution is faced by the pastors and their families. I know one pastor in a southern province that is a strong Buddhist area. They were making sweets as their tent making ministry but some shops refused to sell their products.
For many Christians, most of the persecution comes from the local community and is led by the Buddhist priest. Many women who come to know the Lord are afraid to admit to their husbands that they are going to church. Some husbands, if they find out that their wives have been to church or that the pastor has visited their home for prayer, will beat up their wives. Most of the women do not open up about this.
Even buying land for church is difficult so some Christians have to hold church gatherings in a rented house. My main work is visiting these people, encouraging them, supporting them.
CT: Churches were targeted by Islamic extremists last Easter in deadly bombings. Did the attack come as a shock to the Christian community in Sri Lanka?
Pastor Sunil: We had a 20-year war with the Tamil tigers but there was never an attack on a church. Last Easter was the first time that suicide bombers attacked a church. And it impacted in many ways because across the country, the church attendance dropped and people were scared that they too could be hurt if someone decided to attack their church. Some Buddhist priests took advantage of the situation to say that if this church is here then our village could be targeted too, so it's better that they leave.
CT: You went to Batticaloa and supported the Christians there. What was it like going there in the aftermath, giving support to people who had lost their loved ones?
Pastor Sunil: While I was preparing my sermon, that was when I first heard about these bombs. I took my daughter and we went all the way to Zion Church. Together we visited the homes of people who had lost family members. It was challenging because we were standing there with them but there were so many questions we couldn't answer.
One man lost his daughter and his wife and he was not only crying but asking where was God. If my wife and daughter were the most committed in the family in going to church and used to pray together one hour, then why did God take them in this way? Why didn't God stop these attackers from doing this?
We were also in tears and we didn't have the answers either. In this situation, it's pointless answering. All we could do was be present with them at this time, be there with them, stand with them. We walked with them to the cemetery and it was a very heartbreaking moment.
It was a very challenging time. We all had questions about what was next and the entire country was afraid of the next attack. We were expecting that there would be more.
CT: Are Christians in Sri Lanka still fearful of another church attack by Islamic extremists?
Pastor Sunil: There is not so much fear about this at the moment because the government took so many steps to ensure the safety of the country after the Easter Sunday attacks. But the Christians are really afraid of the present government at the moment because the leader is very hardcore Buddhist and many extreme groups are very active at the moment. For a few of our churches in the southern province, they didn't allow them to hold Christmas services. And some churches are under police protection.
Some extreme groups are trying to say that Sri Lanka should be a singular Buddhist country. The churches are scared because they don't know what's going to happen in the future. This is more so in the rural areas because the local authorities are not really supportive. Even if something happens and you go to the police, it depends on the individual inspector. If he is not a hardcore Buddhist, he will be fair, but most of the time the Christians don't get fair attention from the authorities.
CT: It seems like the government moved really quickly to stamp out the Islamic extremism, but it doesn't seem like the government has really got a grip of this Buddhist extremism?
Pastor Sunil: Yes that's true. The government did the maximum efforts to stop the extreme Islamic ideology. We can't see any of these groups actively speaking about this. Even the Muslims went through a tough time after the Easter attacks, but it's better now. But we don't see that the government is really fair to all people and all religions.
Protestants are a minority, less than one per cent of the population, so most of the time the government only listens to the Catholic Church. In 2019 alone, there were 80 persecution incidents in the country and all of them were connected with the independent charismatic churches in rural areas. If the government asks the cardinal if these reports are true, they would say no because the Catholic Church is not really representing the whole church in the country at the moment.
It's sad but we are trying our best to work together with them. But in most of the rural settings, the churches there are isolated with no one to voice out concerns for them.
CT: Going back to the terrorist attack last year, you made a point of providing long-term emotional support. What does that look like?
Pastor Sunil: Many people were willing to help but my experience is that after some time, people forget. So our plan was to really work with them long term. For some people, they lost their breadwinners and we helped some of the people who lost their businesses financially to re-start their businesses and set up livelihood projects. In one home, the mother died, leaving the father with four children. He was just a labourer and struggled to work and look after the children and take them to school. So we have worked with him to help take care of his children.
We also worked with Open Doors UK to send gifts over Christmas to 89 families. They each received a care pack and it was our way of telling them that they are not standing alone but that they are loved by the body of Christ, we care about you and we are standing with you. We are not just coming to help you, we are here to be with you and to understand you. We are also trying to help in whatever way we can to complete the construction of the church.
CT: What do you think could help to alleviate the persecution in Sri Lanka? Is there something that the Sri Lankan government should do to make religious freedom a reality for Christians?
Pastor Sunil: The legislation should change because the government should allow the registration of new churches. For over 15 years, I don't think any new churches have been able to register. The government needs to change that and also recognise the independent churches as Christian. Sometimes they are not doing that.
On the other hand, the government has to be fair not only to the Catholic Church, but all Christians as a whole. They should be treated equally. Especially in a rural setting, the government needs to put pressure on the local authorities to be fair when they are dealing with minority groups.
CT: How can the UK church support you?
Pastor Sunil: One thing is that you can pray. Prayer will do so many things. The church can also be a partner of our work because we are standing there because so many people are willing to help us. And through their help we can train and resource the next generation.